If musical fame can be judged by national awards, tours, star-studded collaborations and notoriety, then graduates of East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program are near the top of the list of famous musicians in their respective genres.
As good as the accolades are for a musician’s career, many of the graduates say it is the happiness they get by doing what they love that tops the list of job perks.
Jill Andrews, a graduate of the program who attended ETSU from 1998-2002, is a perfect example of someone beaming with happiness that stems from her musical education. Also having a degree in psychology, Andrews went into a job in social work, but even then played music with a band.
She soon expanded on her love for music and went full-on in the music industry, earning herself a professional career as a musician. Most recently, Andrews has written or sung songs featured in television shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Nashville.”
Playing the music heard on TV isn’t the only way Andrews makes a living, though. As she says, it’s just one piece of her musical pie, which includes lots of touring, recording and album production.
The single mother, now living in Nashville, says she draws inspiration from her 4-year-old son Nico, who has showed her the value of her time.
“The seconds are extremely heavy when I’m away from (Nico),” Andrews said. “I’m a single mother doing it all by myself.”
Recently finding the perfect group of motivated people to compliment her insatiable work ethic, Andrews says she’s no longer the feather in the wind that she used to be before having her son.
ETSU’s program set her up well, she said, for a life of performance and gave her a chance to understand how the music business works.
“In college, I didn’t know I was an artist or a musician at all,” Andrews said. “The bluegrass program was huge for me. I had great teachers there.”
One of the current teachers in the program also is a product of ETSU’s shining musical program.
Mandolin player Adam Steffey, a native of Kingsport who now lives in Jonesborough, was one of the first members of the program in the mid-1980s under founder Jack Tottle, from whom Steffey said he took some of his first mandolin lessons. Tottle, Steffey noted, mustn’t have had any idea how big the program would become, and calls it the first of its kind worldwide.
Steffey was there in the beginning when it was just starting to gain speed. He said the biggest jump in the program’s popularity came in the early to mid-1990s, when Tottle realized he needed to bring on more help and staff to continue with the program. Now, Steffey said, it’s continuing to expand, even into including a Celtic group.
Steffey currently tours with The Boxcars, who were nominated for a Grammy for their most recent album, and has performed with Alison Krauss and Union Station.
He and the Boxcars have racked up Grammy wins in the past, and Steffey won the IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year last year. He takes great joy in passing on the oral tradition of teaching Appalachian-style music to the young up-and-comers, something he experienced during his years there, under Tottle, starting in 1985.
“It stoked the fire in me that really wanted to do this,” Steffey said.
His original intention was to become a teacher, so he could earn time off in the summer so he could “pick.” His picking, however, developed into much more than that.
Now, he says, he’s one of those few fortunate people who’s able to have his hobby be his profession. Steffey supplements his musical artistry with some teaching on the side, hoping to influence the future of bluegrass, old time and country music.
Becky Buller, a fiddler, singer and songwriter, has also garnered a great deal of success from her music after graduating from the bluegrass program. Originally from Minnesota, Buller said, even though she came from a family whose members frequently played bluegrass music, she’d have to travel more than an hour to find people outside her family to play with her, and they were often older men.
When she learned that ETSU had a program and a degree for someone like her, she jumped at the chance. “I’m going there,” she remembers thinking. “I can get credit for playing music!”
Now she lives in Manchester, Tenn. From there, she conducts herself as a premier fiddler in the industry, and has earned her share of musical accolades. She has worked with the likes of Ricky Skaggs and Billy Ray Cyrus, and has graced the cover of a handful of bluegrass and fiddler magazines. Her recording goes hand in hand with her traveling across the country to perform.
Buller comes back to ETSU to give workshops and to help current students in the program. North Carolina, she says, has a massive interest in bluegrass music, so she finds herself playing just across the state line frequently, too.
Barry Bales also finds himself busy with the musical life he created after graduating from ETSU. He started off by playing in local bands around the Tri-Cities at age 14 and developed that into a pursuit to be a professional bluegrass musician. Mission accomplished for Bales, a self-proclaimed “traditional bluegrass musician,” who says he honed his performing ways at ETSU and at open microphone performances.
In May, Bales, a multi-Grammy award-winning artist, will be going on tour with Krauss and Union Station, then will be starting a fall tour. He said he thanks his lucky stars every day that he’s a graduate of such an impressive program that set him up to do what he loves for a living.
The oldest established program of its kind, the ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program was started in 1982, and was started to hold to local musical traditions, rooted in Appalachian culture. Director Daniel Boner boasts having students come to Johnson City from across the globe to take part in the groundbreaking musical program.